The title of the Criterion box set for 23 of Jean Painlevé’s films is Science Is Fiction, and that idea was certainly a key principle of his work. His documentary shorts ranged in subject matter from the wondrous (Liquid Crystals) to the harrowing (Experimental Treatment of a Hemorrhage in a Dog) over a multi-decade career. Yet, there is a real throughline to his filmography in his avant-garde perspective of the natural world, along with a very human, bemused affection for its habits and rituals. Painlevé intended his odd films for general audiences as well as for research purposes, and that innate egalitarianism means they are typically as enthralling—even funny—as they are insightful. Now, more than a decade after that box set’s release, those shorts are available to stream over at the Criterion Channel.
Jean Painlevé was born in 1902, the son of famed mathematician and French Prime Minister Paul Painlevé. Jean studied medicine at the Sorbonne, where he met his future wife and work partner Geneviève Hamon, the daughter of anarchist militants. Hamon would collaborate with him for the rest of their lives and is credited as co-director on several of his films (and likely deserves more recognition for her part). Influenced by the burgeoning surrealist and anarchist movements, Painlevé socialized and worked with contemporary artists like Man Ray and Max Jacob, developing the ideas of “Neo-Zoological Surrealism” that he would explore throughout his career.
He began work in 1928 on his first films, including The Hermit Crabs and The Sea Urchins. Not only did the director believe early on that cinema should be taken seriously as an art form, but he advocated for the experimental techniques of the medium as valuable to the sciences and to a greater understanding of nature. This was a controversial idea at the time, but he persisted in making more than 200 often remarkable films over a career surpassing 60 years. Even to a modern viewer, the camera in The Vampire or The Octopus succeeds in looking at the animal kingdom as no one has perceived it before or since. Hamon died in 1987 and Painlevé joined her in 1989, leaving behind a body of films that reminds the viewer of just how surreal, ecstatic and unknown our planet still is.
Going into detail on the full scope of his impressive work in a single article is impossible, but here is a quick exploration—a beginner’s guide—of the strange and beautiful films of Jean Painlevé through five of his major works.
In the opening scene of The Vampire, Painlevé’s narration describes “creatures strange and terrifying in movement or form” under a driving, clarinet-dominated jazz score—as singular a mission statement for him as any. The music only ramps up in ribaldry as the camera captures the monstrous encounter between a vampire bat and a guinea pig. Nosferatu and the mythical vampire have already, literally, appeared on the screen in this short, but the bat’s gleeful expression as he paralyzes then drinks from his prey does all of the work for the filmmakers. Yet another monstrous creature may have played an unconscious part in Painlevé’s images: The director worked as part of the French Resistance against the Nazis, and mused during post-production on The Vampire that the bat’s stretched wing after its meal looked a lot like a Hitler salute.
One of the director’s most whimsical movies, The Sea Horse indulges in teasing the “slightly pompous air” of the title creatures while holding them in a very real awe. Painlevé was always interested in how animals defied humanoid conventions of gender, beauty and mating, and the male seahorse’s unusual ability to nourish embryos and give birth is lovingly illustrated. The final shots are of the creatures going about their habitat in increasingly stunning close-up until a climactic joke: The editing divides the screen between the seahorses and actual race horses out on the track. Nowhere in his filmography is the man’s sheer amusement with his subjects more evident.
Credited to both Hamon and Painlevé, Octopus is a portrait of the mollusk as alien creature. The animal’s bulbous body, camouflaging and long flowing limbs become the stuff of science fiction—augmented by the glowing, full-color ‘60s photography. Violent mating habits involving tentacled attachment and the death of the male are attached to dryly comic voiceover: “There’s no officially sanctioned position for doing that,” the narrator intones. The real star of the picture, however, is Pierre Henry’s wet, murky electronic score—music that sounds as if it comes from the same infinite depths as the octopus itself.
There is no narration in this later-period short. Instead we have only a title card, the jarring electronic music of François de Roubaix and the extraordinary sights and compositions created from liquids catalyzing into solids—which the director then photographed under a microscope. Painlevé combines multiple patterns and images of crystallization to create a kind of natural psychedelia. The resulting effect is akin to small creatures devouring a landscape, rendered in stunning displays of shimmering color (eat your heart out, Haight-Ashbury). Here is as close as an educational film has come to the art cinema of Stan Brakhage—and outright abstraction in general.
Jean Painlevé’s art saw artistry and a distinct aesthetic as inseparable from documentation of animal life. This is exemplified best in Square, his final public film which, after years of voiceover-only appearances, at last featured the director on camera. Painlevé is repeatedly shown in a local park teaching children about the habits and history of the common pigeons who surround humanity. A scene of the children imitating the pigeons’ odd movements is simply delightful. Classic techniques like slow motion, reverse motion, and long close-ups are used to not only teach the viewer the history and features of the birds, but to change common perception of them. Pigeons are often stereotyped as dirty and mindless, but the film photographs them at play with a ball (complete with excited play-by-play commentary), mating and enduring lonely exile from the humans they once served. The final sequence of the birds flying is a classic Painlevé moment: Humans seeing a familiar part of the natural world transform before their eyes into something alien, and often quite beautiful.
C.M. Crockford is a Philly-based neurodivergent writer with poems, articles, stories published in various outlets. You can find him on Twitter and find his other work at cmcrockford.com.